Depending on who you ask, the words "graffiti artist" could conjure up two distinctly different images. One is of a hooded vandal with a spray can, darting through the streets at night, defacing public property and terrorizing the neighbourhood. The other is of a skilled craftsperson who turns blank public canvases into works of art for all to enjoy.
In Vancouver, both types of graffiti artists exist, but the city is doing its best to embrace the latter definition, while stamping out the former. In March 2014, the City of Vancouver launched a street art program to enhance public spaces by partnering with emerging street artists. To date, the city estimates that 60 different street art projects have been completed or are currently underway.
The city sees this as a big step forward towards competing with places like Toronto and Montreal that are well known for their street art scenes. However, some members of the local arts community say that the city is actually taking a regressive attitude towards street art by covering up some of the best pieces and isn’t doing enough to support emerging street artists. The difference, it seems, all comes down to perception.
Mention the words "street art" to anyone familiar with the art scene in Vancouver and one name comes to mind: iHeart. This local street artist was launched into the international spotlight last year when Banksy posted an image of an iHeart piece called "Nobody Likes Me" on his Facebook page. Now the name iHeart has become almost synonymous with street art in Vancouver. But head downtown looking for one of iHeart’s pieces and you may go home disappointed.
This summer, iHeart put together a guerilla art installation under the Granville Street bridge to showcase his latest work. He held an impromptu reception on a Friday night, and by the time the weekend was over, city officials had already painted over all of his pieces.
To some in the local art community, like Hot Art Wet City gallery owner Chris Bentzen, this event was indicative of the city’s restrictive attitude towards street art.
There really isn’t much of a [street art] scene here,
says Bentzen. In Vancouver, he says, the only street art that stays around is the city-authorized murals, while
the more random street art just gets covered up so fast that most people don’t get to see it.
This means that anyone who comes to Vancouver looking for street art, at least of the more underground variety, will have a hard time finding it.
You can dig around for graffiti and street art here in alleyways and in the downtown eastside, but ultimately it doesn’t get a chance to be seen as easily as it does in other cities.
Art vs. Vandalism
A few back alley murals and covert skate park additions don’t qualify,
Part of the problem, she says, is with people’s perceptions.
I feel that if you asked the average person in Vancouver, street art would instill a visual of a hooded delinquent with a marker in their pocket tagging public property and sullying the pristine city streets,There are big differences between street art and tagging, but, unfortunately, I believe that they are generally lumped together in Vancouver.
Promoting a Collaborative Approach
The City of Vancouver is well aware of the tension between art and vandalism when it comes to public perception of street art. David Lewis, program coordinator for the city’s Integrated Graffiti Management Program (IGMP), recounts taking calls from concerned citizens asking if graffiti and tagging in their neighbourhood is an indication of gang activity.
I’m not particularly fearful of tagging - but others are,
Lewis’ program has a two-fold mandate. The first is to rid the city of unauthorized graffiti, which applies to any markings made without permission.
About 99% of the graffiti in Vancouver is tagging, stickers or illegal posters—it’s more scribbles than having any artistic merit. This type of vandalism is cleaned up on city property and we offer assistance to property owners to clean up the graffiti on their property.
Private property owners who are concerned about graffiti on their property can find more information at vancouver.ca/graffiti.
The second part of the IGMP’s mandate is to promote street art in cooperation with local emerging artists. "Most stuff with artistic merit, they tend to work with us in some capacity or work with the property owner," Lewis says.
The IGMP promotes a collaborative approach to street art which includes a variety of actors such as emerging artists, community groups, property owners, and city officials. A current example of this approach is a mural that street artist Ilya Viryachev is currently working on in an alleyway at 2600 Main Street."This was one of our alleyways that was [...] one of the hardest hit areas in terms of vandalism," Lewis says. Last year, the IGMP got together a group of volunteers to clean up the vandalism. Then, rather than leave the space blank, they gave the wall to Viryachev to use as his canvas. "He had some of the local kids from the community centre help design it, and he actually had them out painting the wall for a couple of days," says Lewis.
With the whole community involved in the process, Lewis sees a positive future for the public space.
Involving the community in that process I think you get tons of these little great stories out of that process, and people remember it,
he says. Lewis notes that if city-authorized murals are vandalized, community members are upset, and the story is often reported in the local newspaper. Rather than an intrusion, the mural is now a part of the community’s identity.
From the Street to the Gallery
While working with the city is the only real way for a street artist to ensure that their work remains visible outdoors, another approach that some street artists have taken is to showcase their work through a local gallery.
Hot Art Wet City has hosted street art exhibitions before, and Bentzen is planning another street art show for March 2016. The show will be called "Antisocial Media" and will feature work by street artists iHeart, eafo, and Grominator. Bentzen sees these shows as a way of giving street artists a more lasing canvas for their work by "bringing the street inside the gallery."
While both Bentzen and Seeland would like to see more street art on the actual streets of Vancouver, Seeland admits that a gallery show may be the easiest way for Vancouverites to experience street art.
I feel that [in Vancouver] there’s generally a black and white view of what constitutes ‘art’ and where that ‘art’ belongs—in a gallery,
she says. So perhaps if Vancouverites can be convinced that a piece by iHeart belongs on the walls of an art gallery, they’ll be more inclined to think that it belongs on the wall of a building as well.
Bentzen sees these galleries as part of a solution for creating more of a street art scene in Vancouver, but still wants to encourage more local artists to "embrace the street as their canvas."
One of ways the city could possibly change its mind about street art is if more people just put up street art. I don’t want to encourage people to do illegal things, but if there’s more of it out there and [the city] can’t keep up with it, then maybe they’ll start changing rules,
Meet The Photographer: Ricardo Vacas
Ricardo Vacas, owner of the firm Kerp Photography, always showed intense interest in many forms of creative arts. His professional photography career started in his home country, Spain, where he was the official photographer of several music bands, models and clothing brands. He decided to move to Wellington, New Zealand in 2012, knowing his real interest was fashion photography more than any other field. Currently living in Vancouver, Canada, he now combines his fashion, editorial and commercial photography projects with regular trips to Europe and USA.